A Wellington City councillor says allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards young female law-clerk students are a wake up call for law firms to change their behaviour.
At least two staff members from Russell McVeagh, one of New Zealand’s top law firms, left the firm and chief executive Gary McDiarmid confirmed the firm had received “serious allegations” about events in Wellington more than two years ago.
Victoria University, which confirmed allegations involving several of its students, said it understood police continued to have an “open file” on the matter.
Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons has taken on the new city safety portfolio and is tasked with tackling sexual harassment in the city.
She said she believed what happened at Russell McVeagh was “the tip of the iceberg” in the legal profession.
“Sexual violence is an epidemic within law firms and needs to stop.”
Fitzsimons said law firms, like many other organisations, are now being hold accountable because of campaigns like the #metoo movement and women deciding to speak out.
Firms need to be proactive and change their culture to prevent sexual violence occurring, she said.
“The law profession now has a professional, legal and moral duty to take active steps, to change the culture within law and to stamp out sexual violence.”
The New Zealand Law Society was unable to confirm whether or not a complaint has been made related to the allegations.
Law Society President Kathryn Beck said while the Law Society would investigate all complaints received, the governing legislation did not allow disclosure of any information about complaints or investigations.
Beck said any form of sexual harassment was totally unacceptable in legal workplaces.
It is understood the allegations against Russell McVeagh involved students in the firm’s summer law-clerk programme.
“Where allegations were made, we immediately conducted a full internal investigation at the time and initiated a formal process. Those who were the subject of the allegations left the firm following the investigation,” McDiarmid said.
He said he would not discuss specific details for privacy reasons.
Newsroom.co.nz, which revealed the allegations Wednesday, said two incidents happened at Christmas functions and another at the El Horno Bar in Wellington.
At least one complaint was made to police about a man’s behaviour at El Horno.
Victoria University Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford he was aware of several young women who allegedly experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour at the time.
At the time the university believed it was a police matter so it focused on supporting the young women and ensuring a safe environment for future workplace students.
Guilford said the university had since worked with Russell McVeagh and others to make major changes to the clerkship programme.
This included better induction, help hotlines for those exposed to bad behaviour and reinforced HR policies.
McDiarmid said the firm had “zero tolerance” to bad behaviour.
“[We] will have no hesitation to act if we are alerted to behaviour that contravenes our values, with robust processes in place to investigate and resolve any issues.
“We continue to take all possible steps to create a ‘speak out’ culture and as part of this, have made it clear to our staff that there will be no repercussions for speaking out in any circumstance.”
McDiarmid said Russell McVeagh has always taken employees’ concerns “extremely seriously”.
“We are committed to addressing any issues of harassment at Russell McVeagh, and in our profession generally, by making it known that any such behaviour is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.